Friday, 29 May 2015

Tory FOBT barnacles still on Tory boat and the SNP in bed with bookmaker donor

As the last Parliament closed, FOBTs remained one of the “barnacles” on the Tory boat that they failed to remove in advance of the general election. In the final two weeks before recess Sajid Javid and his junior minister Helen Grant sneaked through a statutory instrument introducing a £50 staking threshold on FOBTs, which they claimed would help players to stay in control and “make better informed decisions about their gambling”. This was despite conflicting evidence on the benefits of this measure and a failure by DCMS to quantify, as part of its impact assessment, what the impact on player behaviour might be.

Research published last year by the Responsible Gambling Trust on FOBTs found that 37% of users were problematic gamblers. It also found that 80% of those who bet an average of £13.40 per spin or more were problematic gamblers. FOBTs will still be available for play at £100 per spin. The government’s measures have put the “fox in charge of the hen house” by encouraging bookmakers to sign players up to loyalty cards so they can seamlessly access stakes over £50. Already the bookmakers are bombarding FOBT players with emails and text messages with “free play” and bonus play” offers. Worryingly some bookmakers have turned their loyalty cards into cash top up cards for use not just on FOBTs but on remote gambling sites also. These measures are likely to exacerbate problem gambling not “help players to stay in control”.

So at Westminster the Tories brought forward non-evidence based measures focused on an arbitrary £50 figure, whilst in Scotland the SNP led Holyrood Executive announced, to the shock of its back bench assembly members, that it wouldn’t require betting operators to seek planning permission for new shops. In Scotland the SNP came in for heavy criticism for this decision, all the more surprising given their demand for greater powers to curb the proliferation of betting shops. On this aspect they already had the power to do something and didn’t. William Hill is the largest betting operator in Scotland and it is interesting that their former Chief Executive is an SNP supporter along with his wife, who donated £50,000 to the independence campaign last year.

Despite the Conservative attempts to shift it, the FOBT barnacle is still firmly stuck to their boat and they can’t escape an immediate question in the coming weeks: will the government reduce the stake to £2 per spin? That is what 93 Councils of cross party leaning, across England and Wales, have demanded and the new Secretary of State and his junior minister will have to answer by the end of June. This is where Tory policy toward FOBTs becomes confusing. The newly appointed Secretary of State John Whittingdale thinks FOBTs “are the cannabis of gambling” rather than, as most commentators refer to them, the “crack cocaine” and in his role on the DCMS select committee recommended more FOBTs be allowed in betting shops.

Meanwhile the junior minister, Tracey Crouch, has campaigned in her local constituency against FOBTs and is on record saying “I believe that we should look carefully at limiting them or limiting the stakes that people can place on them”. So what is Tory policy on FOBTs post the general election? A question I raised on the floor of the House of Commons last week.

Like the Tories, the SNP appear to be confused about how to deal with FOBTs, on one hand leaving betting shops in Scotland to open in any premises on any high street they wish, but at the same time calling on Westminster to devolve greater powers over gambling to Holyrood. In their election manifesto they said “there is no doubt that FOBTs cause harm and hardship in communities across Scotland…the problem of FOBTs is linked to the proliferation of betting shops”.

With the Tories effectively without a policy on FOBTs and a possible ministerial split in determining one, and the SNP unable to differentiate between dealing with an issue of significance across the whole country and wanting to pin it to a devolved agenda, it will fall to the Labour Party to continue the real debate about how to deal with these highly addictive machines.

That debate looks set to kick off in the House of Lords shortly with a Private Members Bill calling for a £2 cap, followed by the governments’ response to 93 Councils demanding the same. The Tories old barnacle may get bigger and land itself on the SNP’s boat as well!